Like Federico Fellini, Terry Tarantino is a dreamer. Both the Italian director and the Italian restaurateur share a gift for the grandiose, favoring ambitious personal projects with theatrical flair. After all, what prudent restaurant owner dishes up live opera alongside pasta dishes named after himself, as Tarantino is wont to do at his Little Italy bistro La Dolce Vita?
La Strada, named after yet another Fellini masterwork, is Tarantino's most daring scheme yet. Set in a transformed East Fourth Street space, the restaurant is as intricately staged as a shoebox diorama. A slender corridor, wrought-iron balcony and shrewdly painted ceiling trick the eye into thinking it's dusk in Istanbul. And like the namesake Fellini flick, this "road" is littered with fantastic scenery. Stained-glass windows hang high in the room, niches are crammed with all matter of gothic ephemera and filigreed lights cast wistful shadows.
If the scenery provides the journey, then the food must be the destination. Not content to limit himself to just one cuisine, Tarantino draws inspiration from a number of his favorite Mediterranean countries. "Spanish, Moroccan, Turkish, Italian and Greek - the food will be a combination of the five cuisines I love," Tarantino declared. On the menu, that multifariousness shows up as Italian wedding soup, Turkish kabobs and Moroccan chicken.
Some criticized Fellini for lacking cinematic focus, and the same could be said about Strada's scattershot menu. But pulling from the same grocery bag, as these cuisines often do, creates a certain harmony out of the chaos. United by grains, greens and, in many cases, flames, the dishes complement one another like a great supporting cast.
Strada boasts a custom-built wood-burning grill, and the distinctive campfire aroma it gives off perfumes the entire room. Many of the kitchen's best dishes are assembled from items plucked from that grill. The aggressively seasoned ground lamb kabobs ($18), for example, are every bit as good as those from an authentic Turkish restaurant. Here, the skewered meat is served atop fluffy couscous and garnished with scallions. Similar kabobs are made with chicken or beef tenderloin.
That barbecue does wonders for a trio of marinated chicken thighs, the stars of a dish called Marrakech Dajaj ($18). Grilled bone-in and skin-on, the meat is as juicy and flavorful as a thigh could be. This hearty platter also includes couscous, this time augmented with tender chunks of sweet potato. Perfumed by both wood smoke and saffron, the scampi risotto ($22) features two large grilled prawns on a bed of lush, creamy risotto. Not sure how tomatoes and summer squash qualify as "seasonal vegetables," as described on the menu, but there's little point in quibbling.
Calamari is prepared at every single restaurant on the planet it seems, and La Strada is no exception. But if you're gonna do it, do it right - and Strada does. Baby squid ($10) is sliced thin and coated with rice flour before frying, giving it a remarkably crisp, delicate crust. Pizza is every bit as omnipresent as calamari, and there is little about Strada's that distinguishes it from the masses. Neither the crust nor the toppings on the Vagabondo ($11) are particularly memorable.
As one might expect from a Mediterranean restaurant, there is a variety of fresh, interesting salads. A classic Greek ($9) contains all the usual suspects, including romaine, cukes, olives and French feta. The Vlora ($8) is a bold arrangement of arugula, blood orange, red onion and grilled radicchio. Because the radicchio was scarcely grilled as billed, however, the salad is all tart and no sweet, making it a bit cloying after a few nibbles. A thick red lentil soup ($6) contains pleasant hints of cumin and spice.
Pasta fans - and La Dolce Vita fans - will likely welcome the inclusion of popular carry-overs from that bistro, including pesto Omar, veal Pavarotti and fettuccini Fellini. Lunch guests can expect the same menu as dinner guests, though with reduced prices.
Fellini's Oscar-winning La Strada is often projected onto a massive stucco wall in flickering black and white, further cultivating the illusion of a European courtyard. The best vantage point for watching the film is from the elevated balcony above the bar. Glimpsing Zampan˜, the brutish carnival strongman played by Anthony Quinn, it's impossible to not make comparisons with Tarantino. The owner's strong-willed style certainly isn't for everybody, and his vanity can sometimes mask his good intentions. But at least he has a style, and nobody can accuse his uniquely personal restaurants.
La Strada 2050 E. Fourth St. 216.861.3663 lastradacleveland.com Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m.